PARK CITY, Utah — Zach Braff, the star of “Scrubs” who brought the emo-rock driven ennui-fest “Garden State” to audiences and iPods in 2004 is back, a decade later with “Wish I Was Here,” to bathe in the humorous side of thirtysomething emotional indecision. The result is funny and sad, but also tiresome and desultory — a mixed bag of very big moments and big feelings.
Braff plays the same Braff character, just a little older now. He’s a struggling actor and confused father of two kids. There’s the early teen precocious daughter (Joey King) and and younger wiseacre son (Pierce Gagnon), both attending a yeshiva. This isn’t because Braff or his wife (Kate Hudson) are particularly religious, but because Braff had a horrible experience at public school, but needs his father’s financial support to give them a private education. The father, Mandy Patinkin, foots the bill, but picks the school.
Patinkin’s character, on paper, is something you’ve seen a thousand times before — the stern, disapproving father. Here’s where hiring a gifted performer elevates your production. Every “choice” Patinkin makes as an actor is the opposite of what you’d expect. He never raises his voice. He smiles and has kindness and love in his eyes when he says the most hurtful things. The scenes he’s in are, without question, extraordinary — and become further resonant when we realize his character has inoperable cancer.
Dad’s inevitable death is the ticking clock in this film, whose script (co-written by Braff and his brother Adam) never met a tangent it didn’t like. And that means getting his genius/anti-social brother (Josh Gad) out of his rut, his wife’s cubical partner to quit his sexual harassment, his daughter to feel comfortable as a Modern Orthodox gal in a Disney Channel world and his son to experience epiphanies on demand.
Yeah, when I break it down like that it sounds pretty horrible, but the hackneyed aspects of the story are buffeted by the sit com-primed zings. Not a moment goes by without a quality line or visual gag. If “Garden State” had a guy whose shirt matched the wallpaper, “Wish I Was Here” has an ancient bearded rabbi on a Segway bonking into walls like a pinball.
One can’t accuse “Wish I Was Here” for tamping down its Jewishness. This is one of the few American films that has a “Shema” joke. Also a “Yentl” joke, a kugel joke, a sheitel joke, and a Tu B’Shevat joke. (That one is particularly funny.) Also, this father-son discussion about Arabs: “No, no, not all Arabs want to kill Jews. See, there’s something called Al Qaeda.” “The black weatherman wants to kill Jews?!?”
Well, when Braff sets it up, it’s funnier than it reads. And the scenes of deathbed familial reconciliation, endless though they may seem, will eventually bring a tear to your eye — I don’t care how hard-hearted you are.
In addition to being an artistic achievement (I’m ready to come down and say the good outweighs the bad) “Wish I Was Here” is, no question, a milestone in independent cinema from a business perspective.
Braff took his project to Kickstarter after producers and financiers told him to make changes to the script. Braff turned to his fans to raise a significant chunk of the dough and was able to make the movie he wanted. (He reminded audiences at the Sundance Q&A that another source of the budget came from a traditional place — his own wallet.) In the abstract sense, one must respect Braff’s chutzpah and business acumen. But as a critic, I can’t help but feel that those creatively crippling moneymen may have had a point.
Example: “Wish I Was Here” features a running dream sequence motif of Braff as some sort of video game avatar shooting robots with lasers. It adds nothing but cheap symbolism and doesn’t even look that cool. Braff crowed at the Sundance premiere that, because of Kickstarter, he was able to keep in all his spaceman footage. In my notebook I’d scribbled “this ‘Star Wars’ crap isn’t working.”
And by the time the third helicopter shot set to chords of indie rock shows the grandeur of a life spent whimsically probing for Answers you may think “get ahold of yourself, man!” But this enormous, heart-on-your-sleeve picture is exactly what Braff wanted to make. If you are a fan of his previous work, you’ll be delighted.